Someone to Love Page 2

Harry, all eager to be gone, bowed to his mother, nodded politely to Brumford, came very close to winking at Avery, and made his escape from the library. Lucky devil. Avery strolled closer to the fireplace, where the countess and Brumford were still seated. What the deuce could be important enough that she had voluntarily prolonged this excruciatingly dreary meeting?

“And how may I be of service to you, my lady?” the solicitor asked.

The countess, Avery noticed, was sitting very upright, her spine arched slightly inward. Were ladies taught to sit that way, as though the backs of chairs had been created merely to be decorative? She was, he estimated, about forty years old. She was also quite perfectly beautiful in a mature, dignified sort of way. She surely could not have been happy with Riverdale—who could?—yet to Avery’s knowledge she had never indulged herself with lovers. She was tall, shapely, and blond with no sign yet, as far as he could see, of any gray hairs. She was also one of those rare women who looked striking rather than dowdy in deep mourning.

“There is a girl,” she said, “or, rather, a woman. In Bath, I believe. My late husband’s . . . daughter.”

Avery guessed she had been about to say bastard, but had changed her mind for the sake of gentility. He raised both his eyebrows and his quizzing glass.

Brumford for once had been silenced.

“She was at an orphanage there,” the countess continued. “I do not know where she is now. She is hardly still there since she must be in her middle twenties. But Riverdale supported her from a very young age and continued to do so until his death. We never discussed the matter. It is altogether probable he did not know I was aware of her existence. I do not know any details, nor have I ever wanted to. I still do not. I assume it was not through you that the support payments were made?”

Brumford’s already florid complexion took on a distinctly purplish hue. “It was not, my lady,” he assured her. “But might I suggest that since this . . . person is now an adult, you—”

“No,” she said, cutting him off. “I am not in need of any suggestion. I have no wish whatsoever to know anything about this woman, even her name. I certainly have no wish for my son to know of her. However, it seems only just that if she has been supported all her life by her . . . father, she be informed of his death if that has not already happened, and be compensated with a final settlement. A handsome one, Mr. Brumford. It would need to be made perfectly clear to her at the same time that there is to be no more—ever, under any circumstances. May I leave the matter in your hands?”

“My lady.” Brumford seemed almost to be squirming in his chair. He licked his lips and darted a glance at Avery, of whom—if His Grace was reading him correctly—he stood in considerable awe.

Avery raised his glass all the way to his eye. “Well?” he said. “May her ladyship leave the matter in your hands, Brumford? Are you or the other Brumford or one of the sons willing and able to hunt down the bastard daughter, name unknown, of the late earl in order to make her the happiest of orphans by settling a modest fortune upon her?”

“Your Grace.” Brumford’s chest puffed out. “My lady. It will be a difficult task, but not an insurmountable one, especially for the skilled investigators whose services we engage in the interests of our most valued clients. If the . . . person indeed grew up in Bath, we will identify her. If she is still there, we will find her. If she is no longer there—”

“I believe,” Avery said, sounding pained, “her ladyship and I get your meaning. You will report to me when the woman has been found. Is that agreeable to you, Aunt?”

The Countess of Riverdale was not, strictly speaking, his aunt. His stepmother, the duchess, was the late Earl of Riverdale’s sister, and thus the countess and all the others were his honorary relatives.

“That will be satisfactory,” she said. “Thank you, Avery. When you report to His Grace that you have found her, Mr. Brumford, he will discuss with you what sum is to be settled upon her and what legal papers she will need to sign to confirm that she is no longer a dependent of my late husband’s estate.”

“That will be all,” Avery said as the solicitor drew breath to deliver himself of some doubtless unnecessary and unwanted monologue. “The butler will see you out.”

He took snuff and made a mental note that the blend needed to be one half-note less floral in order to be perfect.

“That was remarkably generous of you,” he said when he was alone with the countess.

“Not really, Avery,” she said, getting to her feet. “I am being generous, if you will, with Harry’s money. But he will neither know of the matter nor miss the sum. And taking action now will ensure that he never discover the existence of his father’s by-blow. It will ensure that Camille and Abigail not discover it either. I care not the snap of my fingers for the woman in Bath. I do care for my children. Will you stay for luncheon?”

“I will not impose upon you,” he said with a sigh. “I have . . . things to attend to. I am quite sure I must have. Everyone has things to do, or so everyone is in the habit of claiming.”

The corners of her mouth lifted slightly. “I really do not blame you, Avery, for being eager to escape,” she said. “The man is a mighty bore, is he not? But his request for this meeting saved me from summoning him and you on this other matter. You are released. You may run off and busy yourself with . . . things.”

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